Raskolnikov's dreams have a symbolic meaning, which suggests a psychological view. The dream of the mare being whipped has been suggested as the fullest single expression of the whole novel, symbolizing gratification and punishment, contemptible motives and contemptible society, depicting the nihilistic destruction of an unfit mare, the gratification therein, and Rodion's disgust and horror, as an example of his conflicted character. Raskolnikov's disgust and horror is central to the theme of his conflicted character, his guilty conscience, his contempt for society, his rationality of himself as an extraordinary man above greater society, holding authority to kill, and his concept of justified murder. His reaction is pivotal, provoking his first taking of life toward the rationalization of himself as above greater society. The dream is later mentioned when Raskolnikov talks to Marmeladov. Marmeladov's daughter, morally chaste and devout Sonya, must earn a living as a prostitute for their impoverished family, the result of his alcoholism. The dream is also a warning, foreshadowing an impending murder and holds several comparisons to his murder of the pawnbroker. The dream occurs after Rodion crosses a bridge leading out of the oppressive heat and dust of Petersburg and into the fresh greenness of the islands. This symbolizes a corresponding mental crossing, suggesting that Raskolnikov is returning to a state of clarity when he has the dream. In it, he returns to the innocence of his childhood and watches as a group of peasants beat an old mare to death. After Raskolnikov awakes, he reflects on it as a “such a hideous dream,” the same term he earlier used to describe his plot to kill the old woman (62). This diction draws a parallel between the two, suggesting that the child represents the part of him that clings to morality and watches horrified as another facet, represented by the peasants, is driven by hardship and isolation to become cold and unfeeling. The constant laughing of the peasants in the face of brutal slaughter reveals the extent to which they have been desensitized by their suffering, which is a reflection of Raskolnikov’s own condition. This interpretation is further supported by fact that the main peasant, Mikolka, feels that he has the right to kill the horse, linking his actions to Raskolnikov’s theory justifying murder for a select group of extraordinary men. The comparison between the cruel slaughter of the old mare and the plan to murder Alyona Ivanovna delineates the brutality of Raskolnikov’s crime, which is often downplayed by his habitual dehumanizing referral to the old woman as simply a “louse.” While awake, Raskolnikov’s view of the old woman is spiteful, defined by his tenacious belief in his extraordinary man theory. However, the dream acts as a conduit for Raskolnikov’s subconscious, and without the constraints of his theory the horrific nature of his crime becomes apparent. Therefore, in order for Raskolnikov to find redemption, he must ultimately renounce his theory. In the final pages, Raskolnikov, who at this point is in the prison infirmary, has a feverish dream about a plague of nihilism, that enters Russia and Europe from the east and which spreads senseless dissent (Raskolnikov's name alludes to "raskol", dissent) and fanatic dedication to "new ideas": it finally engulfs all of mankind. Though we don't learn anything about the content of these ideas they clearly disrupt society forever and are seen as exclusively critical assaults on ordinary thinking: it is clear that Dostoyevsky was envisaging the new, politically and culturally nihilist ideas which were entering Russian literature and society in this watershed decade and with which Dostoyevsky would be in debate for the rest of his life (cp. Chernyshevsky's What Is to Be Done?, Dobrolyubov's abrasive journalism, Turgenev's Fathers and Sons and Dostoyevsky's own The Possessed). Janko Lavrin, who took part in the revolutions of the World War I era, knew Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky and many others, and later would spend years writing and researching on Dostoyevsky and other Russian classics, called this final dream "prophetic in its symbolism".
Sonya gives Rodya a cross when he goes to turn himself in and symbolizes the burden Raskolnikov must bear. Sonya tells him they will bear the cross together and is taking part of his burden onto herself, encouraging him to confess. Sonya and Lizaveta had exchanged crosses, so originally the cross was Lizaveta's—whom Rodya didn't intend to kill, making it an important symbol of redemption. Sonya's face reminds him of Lizaveta's face, another example of his guilty conscience and symbolizes a shared grief. Self-sacrifice, along with poverty, is a larger theme of the novel. The desperation of poverty creates a situation where the only way to survive is through self-sacrifice, which Raskolnikov consistently rejects, as part of his philosophical reasoning. For example, he rejects Razumikhin's offer of employment and the idea of his sister's arranged marriage. Raskolnikov originally rejects Sonya's offer to accompany him to the confession but, in a feverish state of mind, sees her following him through the market, and finds power in that idealism.
The environment of Saint Petersburg
|“||On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. bridge.||”|
|— Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment (Constance Garnett translation), I, I|
The above opening sentence of the novel has a symbolic function: Russian critic Vadim K. Kozhinov argues that the reference to the "exceptionally hot evening" establishes not only the suffocating atmosphere of Saint Petersburg in midsummer but also "the infernal ambience of the crime itself". Dostoyevsky was among the first to recognize the symbolic possibilities of city life and imagery drawn from the city. I. F. I. Evnin regards Crime and Punishment as the first great Russian novel "in which the climactic moments of the action are played out in dirty taverns, on the street, in the sordid black rooms of the poor".
Dostoyevsky's Petersburg is the city of unrelieved poverty; "magnificence has no place in it, because magnificence is external, formal abstract, cold". Dostoyevsky connects the city's problems to Raskolnikov's thoughts and subsequent actions. The crowded streets and squares, the shabby houses and taverns, the noise and stench, all are transformed by Dostoyevsky into a rich store of metaphors for states of mind. Donald Fanger asserts that "the real city ... rendered with a striking concreteness, is also a city of the mind in the way that its atmosphere answers Raskolnikov's state and almost symbolizes it. It is crowded, stifling, and parched." The inner turmoil suffered by Raskolnikov can also be perceived as a Shakespearean pathetic fallacy. For example, the great storm in Shakespeare's King Lear reflects the state of the titular character's mind, much like the chaos, disorder and noise of St. Petersburg reflects the state of Raskolnikov's mind.
The colour yellow is used throughout the novel to signify suffering and mental illness. Examples include Sonya's yellow ticket, a license to practice prostitution, the walls of Raskolnikov's garret, and the walls of the old pawnbroker, among numerous other examples. Of note, the Russian term for lunatic asylum, "zholti dom", is literally translated as "yellow house". Yellow can also be seen when it is mentioned as the color of Luzchin's ring.